Does William Young really intend to replace the historic vision of God and salvation with a new picture, or is this review simply nitpicking? At countless points throughout the story, we find Mack amazed at what he is learning. The reason is because this vision of God is so very different from everything Mack used to think about God: the things he learned, for instance, in family catechism as a boy (p. 107) and in seminary as a young man (pp. 9, 65, 198). This constant refrain on Mack’s “retraining” is significant, because it tells us that the author knows he is confronting us with a new vision of God to replace the one we grew up with.
With all the attention given to the movie The Shack, it would be good to take a careful look at the book it is based upon. The author, William P. Young, wrote The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media) in 2007. Below is review of the book by Dr. Michael LeFebvre, pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian in Brownsburg, Indiana, and author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms and Exploring Ecclesiastes: Joy That Perseveres.
The Shack is a modern day allegory of the Christian life. Like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, William Young’s The Shack is a vivid tale designed to teach the reader about the way of salvation. But Young’s vision, while helpful in points, ultimately presents a different kind of salvation than that of Bunyan’s classic.
Bunyan’s pilgrim labors under the burden called “sin,” and he only finds freedom from its guilt by receiving forgiveness at the cross. Young’s protagonist is cast in a more postmodern image. The Shack’s central character is Mackenzie Phillips, whose struggle is not with sin and guilt; Mack’s burden is “the great sadness”—the accumulated emotional baggage from his abusive childhood and the death of his daughter. Rather than seeking his own forgiveness, Mack’s journey is one of learning to forgive God for letting him suffer so much, and learning to forgive the people who so deeply wronged him.
In a visionary weekend with God at the site of his daughter’s death (the shack), Mack is allowed to confront God with all his bitterness and questions. It is in this weekend with God that the book leads us through a series of doctrinal lessons on subjects like prayer, why bad things happen, forgiveness, judgment, man’s free will and God’s sovereignty, knowing God, and inner healing. In The Shack, God provides Mack with answers through elaborate object lessons and lots of love, until Mack’s anger and “great sadness” gradually melt away.
The immense popularity of the book shows that its author has touched a chord in the contemporary church. Readers identify with Mack’s angst and are hungry for answers to the questions Mack raises. That much is commendable about the book—the church would benefit from more novels that confront the hard questions about God’s hand amidst the dysfunctionality woes of modern society. But, while this book purports to answers Mack’s questions in the voice of God, the answers often sound more like American public radio than Scripture.
For instance, a major theme through the book is God’s supposed despair over mankind’s use of authority. God explains to Mack that he never intended for people to live in heirarchies, since, “Heirarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you” (pp. 122–3). A major theme of the book is the author’s vision of a world where loving relationships are so pure that structures of authority are unnecessary. This sounds more like a vision from a 1960’s commune than one from Scripture.
Significant attention is also given to the author’s vision of the Trinity. Perhaps the greatest, positive contribution of this book is its strong emphasis on love within the Godhead as the source for all Christian love. In a period when trinitarianism, and inner-trinitarian love, is often neglected, The Shack is pointing the church’s attention in a profoundly important direction with this cover-to-cover emphasis. However, while Young has captured a right principle here, his particular vision of the three Persons of the Godhead bears more resemblance to the modern television family than the biblical testimony of the Three-in-One.